Melbourne TMC: The rights and responsibilities of laity in the Catholic Church

Melbourne TMC: The rights and responsibilities of laity in the Catholic Church

Archbishop Denis Hart

This is the edited text of Archbishop Denis Hart's address to open the Thomas More Summer School in Melbourne on 8 February 2002.

The word "laity" comes from laos which means "people". God came to earth to gather to himself a people He might call His own. Now, bishops and priests are people too, of course. But in this special sense of "people" what the Church is trying to get at is that we are saved as a whole people, as an ecclesial community, and that every member of this community is personally called by God and individually charged by Him with a specific mission and responsibility in the world.

This has always been the faith of the Church, but it is fair to say that it was one of the 20th century Church's greatest achievements to breathe new life into this idea of the lay apostolate - and it has of course been the overwhelming desire of Pope John Paul II to have every Catholic understand this and to live out their Christian lives to the fullest.

As we all know, bishops and priests have special responsibilities to teach and to govern the Church and, above all else, to sanctify the Church by their prayers and their deeds, including the celebration of the sacraments. Lay people too have their own special responsibilities. Catholics are working today in shops and banks, studying at school and university, living in families, contributing to society in a thousand ways; and it is the special responsibility of these lay people gradually, yet persistently, to change all of this temporal, passing world so that it comes to reflect God's will.

The Fathers of Vatican II wrote in the Council document Lumen Gentium: "The laity are to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God's will". And as the Catechism reaffirms, this apostolate of all the baptised is completely necessary for the spread of the Gospel: many people who do not attend church will never hear the Gospel or know Christ except through the witness of lay people; without it, the Catechism suggests, the work of pastors will not be effective (CCC 900).

The Vatican Council taught in Lumen Gentium that every lay Catholic shares in the priestly office of making the world holy and offering it up to the Father, just as the consecrated priest offers up the Body and Blood of the Lord on the altar. All lay people share too in Christ's prophetic work of giving witness to the Gospel and proclaiming it at every opportunity, and in his kingly office by our overcoming sin and learning to rule ourselves rather than being governed by outside forces or inner forces of sin and despair.


Because we all share in Christ's mission we cannot lay down responsibility and say "I don't have to think about these things for myself, the Church will tell me what to do." As a holy people, we have the freedom of the sons and daughters of God and we are created intelligent, in God's own image; this means we have the responsibility to try to understand why the Church teaches as it does and not just to view Church teaching as rules set up by strangers for our blind obedience.

All Church teaching exists for the good of individual men and women and their communities, and we will live happier the more we come to understand this. We have been personally called by God who has an individual plan for each of us; it can be difficult to see what that plan is, but the more we understand our Catholic faith, the better our chances of understanding and living up to the responsibilities God has in mind for us.

Some people, who dearly love the words of Vatican II on the laity, can be rather selective in dealing with the rest of the Council's teaching. For example, the Catholic Church is scattered throughout the world but must remain united in faith to Christ.

Keeping the Church in unity is the work of the Holy Spirit and the special responsibility of bishops, but so that bishops always speak with one voice, Lumen Gentium reaffirms the central importance of loving and loyal communion with the Holy Father, the successor of Blessed Peter - that "lasting and visible source and foundation of the unity both of faith and of communion". The Council Fathers went on to use some of their grandest and most solemn language to bring out this point: our Church is hierarchically constituted and at the top of the hierarchy is one who is proud to call himself Servant of God's servants.

It was part of Christ's genius to create hierarchies, but to transform them into hierarchies of love so that the higher up the tree someone is, the more humble he must be and the more committed to the life of the tree as a whole and in particular, to its lower branches. As the Pope knows, if we ignore the roots that are the lay people, the tree of faith will die; and as we all know, without the topmost branches that are our Pope and his brother bishops, the faithful will lose their source of air, light and life.

Bishops - even all of the bishops of the world together - have, as Lumen Gentium states, no authority unless they speak united with the Pope. This idea of unity is something we must hold to as we come to understand more and more about the role and apostolate of the laity. The Church must never be divided against itself; brothers and sisters separated from each other are always a scandal and a tragedy for Christians.

The mission of lay people is thus one in total unity and collaboration with the Pope, the bishops and clergy. All of us together have the same hope: to make the world holy and fit to be presented by Christ to the Father at the last day.

In 1988, John Paul II, in Christfideles Laici, explained what the holiness of the laity involves. At the outset the Pope made clear that "it is not permissible for anyone to remain idle!". It is, he said, the duty of lay people to be the face of the Church, the limbs of Christ, in the world and this means they should be active in good works and in ideas. In a secular climate there is an even deeper need for religion than at other times, and it is the laity who can do much of the work of bringing the faith to others.

Achieving holiness is something we cannot do without God's grace, but there is much we can do to build the kingdom of His grace in the world. "Re-evangelising our culture" is the Pope's great call in Christifideles Laici, as in so many other places. Far from turning our backs on the world, the Pope's vision is one of turning towards the world but in a new way.

He explains, for example, how the lay apostolate called for by Vatican II has developed into networks of organisations and individuals devoted to respect for human life from conception to natural death, the support of family life, political and economic solidarity with the victims of unjust and criminal abuses of power, care of the sick, the revitalisation of parishes, and so on through many other concrete and practical ways in which we are to build up personal holiness and holiness in our communities.

The Pope is especially clear that young people have a major role to play in evangelisation. He describes youth as "the hope of the Church". In other times, young people were often seen as requiring pastoral concern and support from the Church; this often remains so, but now, he says, many young people are also leading figures in evangelisation and renewal. All young people are stirred by the need to work out their own identity, their relationships, and the truth or falsity of the various opinions they hear around them.

Very often today, people turn to self-help and self-discovery books in order to seek guidance through the troubles and doubts of their lives. This is sometimes a good step to take, but the books consulted are often less than helpful. When we are faced with real trouble and anxiety the "self-help" plan which our own Church offers us is one of vocation and mission.

Our God does not leave us to stumble about in the dark: if we are patient and humble and wait upon His call, it will come. God calls people and sends them forth: vocation and mission; these two go hand-in-hand. God does not just call out to us and then pass on, leaving us puzzled: He calls out with a plan in hand, a mission which we are to work out and work our way through.

This is not an immediate quick-fix solution: His call may come over months and take us years to identify and to follow. We should wait quietly to discover God's will for each of us, seeking to understand more day by day, praying, and speaking with trustworthy others about our hopes and fears. We need never be afraid that he has forgotten us half way through the process: he will never forget. As St Theresa of Avila wrote: "be not afraid or disturbed; your troubles are passing; only God lasts for ever."

The Pope also tells us in Christifideles Laici that we should try to avoid separating our Christian lives off from our "secular lives": "every area of the lay faithful's lives, as different as they are, enters into the plan of God, who desires that these very areas be the 'places in time' where the love of Christ is revealed and realised for both the glory of the Father and service of others." In other words, it is a whole plan for good living that God offers us - not just some rules about how to approach things on Sundays and at Christmas and Easter but a vision of how to function at school, at work, in the family, at every moment of every day.

When God's call comes we must be ready to understand it and to see how best our mission is to be interpreted. This means we need to form and inform ourselves as best as we can about Catholic thought and tradition. Schools, universities, parishes, dioceses, families should be centres in which we teach the truth about mission and communion.

There are many false views of these and it is so easy to fall into them if we lack support from each other and a good basic understanding of the faith. It is for bishops, priests, parents, students and workers together to determine just which resources our people need and how best to supply these so that we can truly form a people for mission.


There are tasks only an ordained priest can perform and there are tasks only a lay person can perform - for example, raising a family. The lay apostolate is something the Church in this pontificate has come to depend upon more and more. Pope John Paul II has probed every aspect of the life of the laity, family life, workplace relations, political justice, human sexuality, medical science, our ecclesial role.

He has come increasingly to believe that in countries such as ours re-evangelising the culture is largely in the hands of lay people. This is their right as well as their duty. They have a right to be heard by all the world because they speak in Christ's name, the name at which every knee shall bow.

It is important for each of us to be confident of the faith and knowledge we have - and readily offer it to others. This is our way and Christ's way of enriching the world and drawing it to the purpose for which we are made and in which we do find happiness.

At the conclusion of Vatican II's Lumen Gentium, its great document on the life of the people of God, the Council Fathers devoted a whole chapter to Mary. For if we want to understand how lay people can lead holy lives, we should look to Mary.

Pope John Paul II also concludes his Exhortation on the Laity - as he concludes all his major documents - by appealing to Mary on behalf of lay people. His prayer to her might be our prayer. He writes: "O Most Blessed Virgin Mary, with you we give thanks to God, 'whose mercy is from generation to generation' for the exalted vocation and the many forms of mission entrusted to the lay faithful. Virgin of the Magnificat fill their hearts with a gratitude and enthusiasm for this vocation and mission. Amen."

Read the complete text on the Melbourne Archdiocesan web site.

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